Part I: How NC's Wetlands Were Raped and Pillaged

I came across a couple of interesting essays on the web this weekend.  Both are by J. Paul Lilly, Associate Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at N.C. State.  This gentleman knows his Tarheel dirt history!   The first paper, ‘Organic Soils,” is a good a summary of historic wetland drainage in eastern North Carolina.  It has some jewels of natural history like this one concerning the first large state funded drainage project: 


During the time period preceding the Civil War, the state of North Carolina tried vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to develop other swamp lands. The Board of Internal Improvement promoted swamp drainage from 1819 until 1826. In 1825, the state Literary Fund was established to support public education. All remaining state-owned swamp lands were turned over to the Board to be used to raise money for public education. The state began surveying the swamp lands in 1827. Activity greatly increased in 1836 after the state received a windfall payment as their share of the monies realized from the sale of western lands. The state received over $1,400,000, paid off the state debt of $400,000, set aside $100,000 for current expenses, and richly endowed the Literary Fund. At the time, these were huge amounts of money. The Literary Board set aside $200,000 for swamp land drainage. Between 1838 and 1842, it had canals dug at Pungo Lake, Alligator Lake, and Lake Mattamuskeet. Over the next 10 years, the Board tried to sell land but sold very little and at very low prices.Later, in 1855, a canal was dug into Open Ground Swamp in an attempt to open that land to development. Ruffin visited Open Ground in 1856 and proclaimed it totally worthless for agriculture. The Civil Was ended this era of land development and bankrupted both the state and the plantation economies of the larger farming operations.” 

So, North Carolina’s first large appropriation for wetland destruction (land improvement in those days) was in 1827 for $200,000!  Then it appears the state lost its shirt selling the drained land.  I did some calculating and $200,000 would be about $37 million in 2005 dollars.  That brings to mind an interesting comparison. The Land for Tomorrow initiative, now underway in North Carolina, seeks $1 billion in state funds for conservation.  None of this is dedicated to wetland restoration.  If we were to  “match” the Literary Fund’s original commitment to wetland destruction, only $37 million (3.7%) would need to be dedicated toward restoration of wetlands.  I think we owe this to our wetland Karma!

All of the talk now is about the money going to land trusts for land preservation. Preservation of land is a good thing, but restoration of wetlands is what’s needed downeast if we want to improve water quality. This is a terribly underappreciated fact. 


Professor Lilly’s 2nd essay, “North Carolina Agricultural History” is a broad treatment of the history of state’s agricultural landscape.  There is a lot here, but I always find interesting the descriptions of what horrible condition the land was in back in the old days:   

In order to raise money after the Civil War, the state sold off much of the remaining swamplands. The period between the end of the War and the early 1900s saw the rise of large scale mechanized timber harvest. There were still substantial acreages of virgin timber in eastern North Carolina in 1860 but essentially none by 1900……..Most of the cut over land was considered worthless, but some of it was promoted for agricultural development. European settlers were actively recruited to settle the North Carolina swampland. The area of Terra Cecia in Beaufort County is an example of one such development. To the west there was more and more worn out land. Photographs from the period show farmed and abandoned land and the absence of forests. Planned reforestation was advocated in the 1890s by the state forester, but was not widely practiced until much later.”  

And here’s an interesting insight…agricultural acres as a whole actually shrank and shifted east as wetlands were drained in the 70’s and 80’s.  Mountain land went back to forest land as the coastal plain got drained.  All very interesting. 

For the state as a whole, cropland acreage is substantially lower now than it was than 50 to 75 years ago. Economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in swampland development for agriculture in eastern North Carolina. As a result, as acreage declined in the west, it increased somewhat in the east. We can expect cropland acreage to begin to drop in the east now that swampland development has ended and agriculture competes with other, higher value, uses for land. The same land that is desirable for crops is desirable for shopping centers and other urban uses. Forest land acreage should remain stable or even grow since forestry products seem to have a bright future. The amount of forest land in NC was about 18.7 million acres in the 1930’s and it is still about that amount now.”      

I’d like to meet Professor Lilly, he is good at putting North Carolina’s natural resource history in perspective.